Civility, Desperation, and the Banality of Abstraction

After a recent school board meeting in New Orleans, some teachers surrounded a school board member in the parking lot and gave him a piece of their minds (no violence occurred, by the way). As you might imagine, calls for civility ensued. To which Athenae at First Draft offers the appropriate response (boldface mine):

Yes. They said mean things to you, and stood behind your car. This horror is beyond imagining. All you wanted to do was try to negate their contract!

Look, this is why the civility bullshit and the constant lamenting of partisanship and the lauding of bloodless objectivity above all else is so pernicious. The only thing civility in politics serves is incumbent power. It’s always going to be rude to stand up for yourself in the face of bullying. It’s always going to be an affront to those who want to keep you in your place when you try to break out of it. Incivility is the POINT. Disruption of the status quo is the POINT. Otherwise you don’t get anywhere, because what incentive is there to give you what you want?

…You should have to look at the people your politics affect. You should have to tell them, face to face with their anger, why you’re doing what you’re doing. You OWE them that. Otherwise we’re all just constructs, just pieces moving around on the board, and I know it’s fun to play that on the Sunday shows but that’s television, come on. We have a right to put our own faces to the things that affect us, to say, this is not an abstraction.

These are real things, teacher contracts. They affect the actual teachers who taught your son. They affect your friends and your neighbors and your kids and your relatives, and expecting everything to be all polite so it’s easier for you to wreck it is asking them to make their lives into something for you, into something that isn’t real, something that doesn’t matter. You have every right to do whatever douchey thing you’re about to do, to talk in general terms about this group or that group, about what they do and don’t deserve. And they have every right to stand up and say, you mean me. The person who taught your son. You mean me.

It disrupts the conversation, doing that. It inconveniences the person who wants to make a point that is either monstrous or thoughtless or glib. It shames him, or it should.

Which brings us to something Bill Mitchell recently wrote about Niall Ferguson’s latest inanity (Dean Baker demolishes Ferguson as well):

Ferguson calls for tight fiscal rules [in the U.S.] of the type they are implementing in the Eurozone – constitutional amendments to require balanced budgets to “reduce the discretion of lawmakers to engage in deficit spending”.

Which if this rule was enforceable would have guaranteed that the Great Recession would have become the Great Depression.

What I propose for Niall Ferguson is this rule: He loses his job if the national unemployment rate rises above its long-term average during growth cycles by more than 2 per cent. His pay is cut in half if it rises against this benchmark by more than 1 per cent.

Would he then propose a balanced budget rule? He might – but then we would know he is insane.

A lot of the truly bizarre policy discussions over the last few years can be laid at the feet of Orwellian language–and many progressives are as much at fault as anyone else. Instead of a ‘stimulus’ bill, which sounds like Viagra or Cialis, Democrats, including the Obama Administration, should have called it a jobs bill. Because even the watered down version that eventually was passed did create jobs–people were paid to do stuff that needed doing.

As long as ‘management speak’ continues to rule instead of direct speech, we abstract away the harm that all of these policies do to real people (and remember, a large chunk of management speak exists for the primary purpose of firing workers; e.g., ‘right-sizing’). Worse, those who use this language to enable these atrocious policies typically, like Ferguson or the obnoxious school board member, have nothing to lose other than a sense of self-worth. As Athenae noted, vague language not only disguises bad policy, it empowers people to make it. Call it the banality of abstraction. And it is often evil.

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2 Responses to Civility, Desperation, and the Banality of Abstraction

  1. dr2chase says:

    Regarding people like Ferguson I find myself wondering, “How do the neurons connect? Is he immune to evidence and rules of logic? Is his brain really just a bunch of weird prejudices and an extraordinarily glib excuse-maker?” And why the fuck does Harvard still employ him?

  2. Misaki says:

    >Because even the watered down version that eventually was passed did create jobs–people were paid to do stuff that needed doing.

    106 likes, 13 dislikes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiHoD28SAIg

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